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Oversized Houses on Undersized Lots

42Huntington(This article was first published in 2014 - but there have been no changes to Village Code since then. Given the debate about preservation and new construction, we thought it was worth a second look.) During the debate over the use of gravel to extend lot coverage on home sites, many asked, "If people are concerned about the size of new and renovated homes, why not change the laws that regulate the size of homes, rather than the use of gravel?"

We took a look at the Village's existing floor area ratio (FAR) regulations that specify the maximum allowable size of homes on various size lots in the Village. The good news is those rules look perfectly generous and reasonable.

For instance, on a home on 1/3 acre, or about 14,500 square feet, the maximum allowable home size is about 4,300 square feet. Sounds adequate to me, but apparently builders are finding ways to build much larger homes on these lots.

For instance, a new home under construction next to the Greenacres School at 42 Huntington Avenue is advertised as a 6,115 square foot home on a lot of .31 acres.

How can the builder construct a home that is almost 50% larger than the permitted 4,300 square feet, and taller than all the neighboring homes?

The answer lies in the exemptions to the floor area ratio (FAR) requirements that are outlined in section 310-103 of Village code. Local builders and architects have grown adept at using these exemptions to build homes that are far larger than the ones the trustees originally envisioned when they enacted this code in 2003 and 2008.

The exemptions allow some full basements, dormered attics, garages and the space above them all to be exempt from the maximum floor area rules.

For instance, many of the new homes have front facing garages with rooms above the garage. In this case both the garage and the room above it are exempt. If a typical two-car garage is 20 x 20 feet, the space above it could be 400 square feet, and that space is exempt from the FAR.

For basements, if the foundation wall of the basement is not more than 3 feet above grade on the front of the house, the entire basement does not count in the calculation. That means that if a house is on a sloped property, it may have a full finished basement with full-length windows on the side and back of the house.

The area under dormered roofs on the third floor of a house does not count either – if builders extend the dormers for less than 1/3 of the linear footage of the front, and set the dormers beyond 5-feet of the sidewalls on the back. This allows third floor spaces that add considerable square footage to a house.

And why do the new houses appear to tower over their neighbors ... Because they actually do extend beyond the 35-foot height limit. With a peaked roof the house can be taller as the building height can be calculated to the mid-point rather than the peak of the roof. That's why so many of the new homes feature a peak or two like the one shown here.

Therefore, from what I see, the Village does not need to amend the maximum allowable size of a house. Instead they should take a second look at the exemptions. By tightening those exemptions, the Village can require that appropriately-sized homes be built on residential lots. Or, as one reader suggested, simply by counting all finished interiors spaces in the Floor Area Ratio calculation, home sizes could be reduced.

Two other changes could also be considered if Trustees are serious about preserving open space and reducing the appearance of bulk.

Some of the newer bulkier homes are built closer to the street than the teardowns they replace. Since the new homes are also taller and wider, by moving them closer to the curb, they appear to loom over their neighbors and don't conform to the site line of the existing homes. Perhaps laws can be changed to require that the front setback of a replacement home is consistent with the footprint of the original home.

Subdivisions of Village lots continue to be a lucrative way for developers and property owners to add homes to Scarsdale's already densely populated streets. Once a lot is subdivided, two new homes can be built where just one originally stood. This often results in crowding, destruction of trees, new curb cuts, and less breathing space for neighbors. In the past few weeks, the land use boards have considered and approved subdivisions at 21 Rodney Way, 12 Stonewall Lane and 2A Normandy Lane.

Do you have ideas for controlling development and land use in Scarsdale? Share them in the comments section below.

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Comments   

#10 Anonymous 2015-10-26 10:28
@Interested Observer - thanks for that additional information. Very valuable.

But then wouldn't it make sense to simply REQUIRE garages in new construction? Maybe a one car garage for houses < a certain sq ft and at least two cars for anything bigger?

Because when the attics and basements are finished, storage is reduced. And then you have you have, for example, a five bedroom house with 3000+ of finished interior space and a one-car attached, front facing garage that is at the minimum front set back. The one car garage gets used for storage (because the attic and basement are bedrooms and family rooms) and the result is one parking spot in the driveway.
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#9 Interested observer 2015-10-21 13:27
Although the article is mostly right about the FAR exceptions work, the example about the living space above the garage is incorrect. In the example discussed, the living space above the garage is included in the square footage.

The garage exclusion is in the FAR because it was decided that it is preferable for homes to have garages than to not have them. If the FAR included garages as "living space," homes would get built without garages, meaning that the cars would be parked in the driveway or on the street. The amount of the exemption is limited so you only get to exclude the parking space for 1 car on small lots (250 sq ft) and 2 cars on larger lots (400 sq ft).
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#8 Greenacres Resident 2015-10-20 09:03
The #5 Comment by Resident summarizes many of my frustrations with this debate. I feel that there are too many people in Scarsdale who believe they are "entitled" in one or many senses of the word. Many believe they are entitled to the views and vistas to which they are accustomed - even if that means that their neighbors will be precluded from building or renovating to modern standards. These people (who I believe are a small but vocal number) are imposing their own entitled views on the entire community while simultaneously claiming that those who choose to improve their private property with their own money are entitled in the negative sense of that word. If the community as a whole is concerned about overbuilding then there should be a surcharge on everyone's taxes to buy up remaining houses and lots that may become the next tear down. Anyone willing to pay up? I am guessing not.
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#7 Anonymous 2015-10-18 08:54
I just read on this website that the last two subdivisions on Rodney Road and Stonewall Lane will have a combined fee of over $100,000. That money is charged by the Village to preserve open space. Where will that money be spent?
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#6 Anonymous 2015-10-18 08:38
How about taking some of the money that the Village collects for these subdivisions under "Park fee" and using it to buy some open space? Every subdivision requires that the applicant either offer up some land as park space or pay a fee in the tens of thousands of dollars. This has been the case for decades and almost always it is a fee in place of land but, I have never heard that the Village used any of this money to buy parkland. Where does the money go?
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#5 Resident 2015-10-16 11:16
This issue is clearly dividing our community and it would seem that their are some people who are angry at those who are living in larger homes. Why should anyone be judged for choosing to live in a larger home for which they have payed for? Disrespectful terms such as McMansions and entitlement have been used when voicing opposition against larger homes. These comments divide a community, perpetuate bad feelings and simply are not true. Since when is it fair to judge a book by its cover? I do not see smaller homes being referred to in a negative way. How would that make those homeowners feel if their homes were described by other residents as "too small" or unattractive or an eyesore? I would not have expected to see this kind of disrespect tolerated yet it goes on in almost every article, meeting and forum where people who oppose larger homes voice their concerns. We are an educated community that can certainly work to bridge the concerns of some residents while at the same time addressing the needs of other residents. I look forward to a more respectful meeting of the minds. In the 21 years I have lived in Scarsdale, I have seen some of the most architecturally beautiful homes built here creating an appeal to many new residents who have contributed greatly to our community. Not just through their tax contributions, but through volunteering on the ambulance and fire departments as well as PTA's, school and town boards. All the members of our community are important and we should remember to speak about others the way we want to be spoken of.
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#4 Anonymous 2015-10-15 17:03
@Wc_guy

I agree it doesn't affect anyone else if the basement of an older house gets "finished."

But in new construction finished basements are more marketable with more natural light and higher ceilings. This creates an incentive to raise the level of the first floor. This results in greater overall height.

More importantly, not counting basement space allows a builder to achieve a larger footprint by increasing the amount of allowable square footage available for the first and second floors. This increases the overall volume of the home.
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#3 Hockey Dad 2015-10-15 11:21
Count the ATTIC!!!

It would be that simple, if it has stairs up to and you can stand up the attic should count towards FAR, that fricking simple.
No theatrics at Trustee meetings, no griping from builders and brokers, no whining from the "big house" people who now cannot sell their homes because of HIGH taxes, NOT gravel.

Just count the fricking attic and this whole oversized house crud would all be over!!!!!!
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#2 Wc_guy 2015-10-14 19:49
Can someone explain-outside of any water runoff issues-why someone should care if a house has a finished basement? It doesn't add to bulk or appearance, so I'm not sure why that should count in FAR. In one sentence explain what the negative externality is to neighbors or the village of basement space. If you can't, I would suggest moving on to other issues.
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#1 Anonymous 2015-10-14 17:26
Idea #1 - Count any potential interior square footage towards the square footage maximum. Include basement and attic space with over 7'6" headroom. If necessary, RAISE the allowable square footage, but be realistic about what builders are really doing and and count any enclosed space with reasonable headroom towards the total. Attached, front facing garages should be included in this.

Rear or side entry garage square footage should be calculated with a multiple < 1.0. And detached garage square footage with an even lower multiple. Count ANY second floor garage space fully.

Attractive features such as patios, porches, and maybe even pools and tennis courts (since larger lots seem to suffer relatively more from sq ft restrictions) should be calculated with even lower multiples.

Idea #2 - Amend the allowable square footage based on trees removed and trees persevered. The subdivision of 21 Rodney road into two lots was just approved. The plans require the removal of five mature oak trees, in the 80' to 100' range. This was approved with the caveat that they have to plan seven 8' tall coniferous trees. The lot is being clear cut, so a row of giant cedars and several ornamental trees will also be removed.

Idea #3 - Don't approve plans that allow builders to dig foundations under the drip lines of mature, healthy trees on neighboring lots. This is DANGEROUS and the town doesn't seem to take it into consideration. I lost a 100'+ tree this way within weeks of the 10' deep foundation next door being dug within 8' of the trunk. Walk by the house going up at the corner of Madison and Edgewood. The foundation was dug pretty close to a giant oak on the property adjacent to the rear. That tree might be OK, but did anyone consider it? Did an arborist evaluate the safety of digging so close to that tree?
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